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I Am Pretty Sure It Was the Lights

I Am Pretty Sure It Was the Lights

I think it was the lights. Of course, there are the parties, the music, and the food. You cannot forget about all those things. But, for me, I think it was the lights that made the difference during some of the darkest times in my life. I think it was finding a way to not only see the light, but to let the light in. The challenge was to let the lights from this time of year penetrate my darkness.

It certainly isn’t coincidence that so many of our most meaningful religious and cultural celebrations and gatherings happen during the darkest, coldest time of the year. It also isn’t coincidence that lights and elaborate decorations are a part of these celebrations. It is this time of the year that so many of us wake in darkness, work all day inside, and then drive home in darkness, fighting the bitter cold elements of the season.

We also start new this time of the year, in the dead of winter. We start new while everything around us remains dead and dormant. We celebrate the ending of another year and the hope of a new one. We light up the sky with fireworks, and cities with music and celebration. Yes, I am almost sure of it. It is the lights that made all the difference for me and my willingness, no matter how hard it was, to let the light in, even if just a little.

It was three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang. It was my mother on the other end of the line. Her voice sounded weak and I could tell she had been crying. “Hi Andy,” She said, “I’m sorry to wake you and Dana up, but we just got a call that my dad has been killed.” We cried together, neither of us speaking. After a minute, she shared with me that he had been murdered and that we did not know much more than that. I received this call early December, right after Thanksgiving. In the midst of all the year end celebrations and during the darkest time of the year. It was hard to let the light in.

I was enraged, to tell the truth. I was broken, and I was hurting. The lights, pomp, and circumstances of the season, well, it just seemed in such contrast to the way I was feeling inside. I didn’t want to be with people that year. I dodged the parties as far as I can remember. I didn’t sleep well, either, so I spent many nights up late, sitting in my living room with my wife, holding on and struggling with the hurt. Yet, there with us on those late nights were the lights from our Christmas tree. They were there glowing in the darkness. Twinkling out little shimmers of hope, that countered the darkness that engulfed our home…and our hearts. I didn’t know it at the time, but I remember gazing for hours at those lights, mostly feeling nothing.

Yes, I am pretty sure about it, now. It was definitely the lights that made a huge difference. Even when it was hard to let the light in, they continued to shine. And when I was able to let them in again, they were still there. And, they have continued to be there, even through my mom’s death and other subsequent losses.

Why? Because we all need a little light every now and then. Because when it is dark, we light up the darkness with light. That’s why we light up and celebrate during this dark time of the year. It is because we need the light. So, yes, it was the light, it always has been the light, and it is the light even now. Wherever you may be in your life. Whatever grief you have had to bear this year or years before. Whatever burden you carry. I have no list of steps to take to get through the holidays.

But I can say to you that you are not alone. We are all carrying our own burden. And, if you can at all find a way to do it – even just a little, find a way to let the light be part of your journey. Pay attention and let the light carve out a little hope in the midst of the cold, dark winter. Whether it is the light from the season, or the light that shines through the lives of others, loving you, cheering you on, and offering you care – see the light, notice the light, and find a way to let the light in.

-Andy McNiel, December 10, 2018

Ten Things Grieving Children Want You to Know

Ten Things Grieving Children Want You to Know

#1 – Grieving children want to be told the truth.

• Tell grieving children the truth with these considerations in mind:

  • The age of the child
  • The maturity level of the child
  • The circumstances surrounding the death
  • Answer questions as honestly as you can

#2 – Grieving children want to be reassured that there will always be someone to take care of them.

• Grieving children spend a lot of time worrying about another person in their life who might die.

• To help alleviate this fear, it’s important to reassure them that there will always be someone in their life who will take care of them.

• Enlist the aid of their parent or caregiver to determine a plan for the children. Let the children know what the plan is.

#3 – Grieving children want you to know that their grief is long lasting.

• Children will grieve the person who died for the rest of their life.

• Grieving kids don’t “just get over it”.

• They will often be bewildered when other people in their life have seemed to move on.

• Their grief changes over time as they grow and change over time.

#4 – Children often cope with grief and loss through play.

• Children grieve through play.

• Typically, they cannot sustain prolonged grief.

• Children use play as a way to cope with their grief and to take a break from the grief.

#5 – Grieving children want you to know that they will always miss the person who died.

• People die, but love doesn’t die.

• Grieving children will miss the person who died for as long as they live.

#6 – Often, grieving children want to share their story and talk about the person who died.

• Having an opportunity to tell his or her story is often beneficial to a child’s healing process.

• Sharing memories about the person who died is also very important.

• Grieving children don’t want to forget the person who died – they are also worried that others will forget their person.

#7 – Every child grieves differently.

• Every child has his or her own grief journey and own way of grieving.

• Some children might be more expressive with their grief.

• Some children might keep it all in.

• Siblings grieve differently.

• Just because children come from the same family doesn’t mean that their grief will be the same.

• It is important to honor each child’s story, even if it is different than his or her sibling’s story.

#8 – Grieving children often feel guilty.

• Grieving children will often feel pangs of guilt.

• Even if the guilt is not justified and has no basis in reality.

#9 – Even though I might be acting out, what I’m really feeling is intense emotions of grief.

• Grieving children frequently feel sad, angry, confused, or scared.

• Since they might not know how to express all of these emotions, they often end up acting out instead.

#10 - If you’re not sure what a grieving child wants, just ask him!

• When in doubt, ask a grieving child how you can help.

• Check in with the child – do they want to talk about the person who died? Maybe not.

• Expect myriad answers.

• Do they want to write about their grief or do some other activity to express their grief?

• What do they need?

You can help grieving children by:

• Listening

• Really hearing them when you’re listening

• Following their lead

• Validating their feelings

• Answering their questions

• Seeking out additional resources, as needed

Posted by Pamela Gabbay, EdD, FT

Helping Children Feel Safe after a Public Tragedy

Helping Children Feel Safe after a Public Tragedy

“Children are resilient,” is a phrase we often hear after a public tragedy. We hear it from mental health experts being interviewed by reporters. We hear it from reporters as they give tips to parents about caring for their children. We hear it from members of the public as they reflect on their own children’s responses to unthinkable situations. It is not true.

The truth is that children are VULNERABLE. Their minds are not fully developed. They are taking in the world around them, good and bad. They are being shaped by the things they see, hear, and experience. What children experience and the support they receive has a direct impact on their health now and as they grow into adults (CDC).

The truth is that children CAN be resilient. But, they are not resilient in a vacuum. There are many factors that bolster resilience in children. Though these factors do not guarantee that children will be resilient, they do heighten the likelihood that children will be able to absorb difficulties and move forward in a healthy way.

The truth is that children who have one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult are more likely to be resilient (Harvard, 2015). There is a rich body of work over the past twenty years that supports this. This is the top factor that bolsters resilience in children, buffering against the impact of toxic stress on children’s development.

With the truth in mind, how do we comfort children and help them feel safe after a public tragedy? How do we strengthen their resilience to its effects? First, they need our time and attention. If you have children in your home, dedicate special time with them to play or share a fun activity. Let them have a choice about what you do together.

Spend time with children on their terms, not just your terms. This boosts their self-confidence. Quite often, children will share openly with us about their feelings during these interactions. Also, when we are spending time with our children and giving them our undivided attention, we will see opportunities to encourage and reassure them.

Second, turn off the television and 24-hour reporting of the public tragedy. This is not to be mistaken as “hiding” the truth from your children. Children need to know the truth and it is best if they hear it from a caring adult with whom they have an ongoing relationship. It is okay to talk to your children about the tragedy and ask their feelings about it. But, there is no need to dwell on it or bombard them with news reports or conversations about it.

Third, meet them where they are at. When you are spending time with your children, check in with them periodically. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they have seen or heard. Let them know they can ask you any question. Limit the amount of details you share, focusing on the details they express to you.

The truth is that building resiliency is a process, not a given, in children. Central to a resilient child is at least one stable and committed parent, caregiver, or other adult. Children need our help to feel safe after a public tragedy. Think about the children you have in your life and ask yourself, “What am I doing to help them feel safe and be resilient?”

References

“Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 June 2016, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

About the Authors

Andy McNiel, MA & Pamela Gabbay, EdD, FT are the authors of Understanding and Supporting Bereaved Children: A Practical Guide for Professionals by Springer Publishing, New York, NY.